The “Heart of America” Annual Survey Results: A Counterpoint to the Narrative of Polarization

Back to Winter 2024: Volume 112, Number 4

By Gail C. Christopher

The United States seems not so “united” these days. We are bombarded throughout each day with news stories that amplify polarization and division in the United States. Most of the stories are related to partisan politics, but they are rapidly becoming a cultural backdrop as well. Our global peers are taking note, increasingly viewing America as a divided nation.1 Extremism and division may be newsworthy, and sensational stories of conflict attract viewers, but new polling reveals that these stories do not reflect the true sentiments of most Americans.

On behalf of the National Collaborative for Health Equity (NCHE), the Benenson Strategy Group, a well-respected research firm, conducted 1,304 online interviews from June 16-24, 2023.  All respondents were 18 years old or older and included oversamples of young voters and voters of color to ensure adequate representation within the survey. The margin of error at the 95 percent confidence level was ±2.60 percentage points.

The poll results were surprising and welcomed in these times of global unrest, multiple wars overseas, horrific violence, and immeasurable human suffering. They provide a reality check on the perception of widespread backlash against efforts to achieve racial and gender justice. For despite intense feelings of division, there is still a strong appetite for unity within the United States. A significant majority still take pride in their American identity and two in three (67 percent) say they are hopeful Americans can work through differences and find lasting common ground in the future.

NCHE commissioned this poll to help amplify narratives that are more authentic than those portrayed in everyday social media and mainstream media outlets. This is part of our broader effort to influence narratives that have a direct bearing on the health and wellbeing of this nation. NCHE’s work to achieve our mission of increasing racial and health equity in America requires creative strategies for narrative change.

This article will highlight some of the findings from our recent poll, the Heart of America Annual Survey within the context of the expanding movement in this country for racial equity and racial healing. A link to the full survey is provided.

Finding #1: 31 percent believe relationship building is a critical first step

Thirty-one percent of Americans believe relationship building is critical to help people see each other through the lens of our shared humanity. We believe that this poll finding is an indicator of the impact of more than a decade of philanthropic investments that support racial healing initiatives across America. Investments by W. K. Kellogg Foundation, Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, Field Foundation of Illinois, and Chicago Community Trust are a few foundations that are advancing this expanding movement. Social science research tells us that there are effective ways to change attitudes, reduce bias and prejudice, and this is fundamentally relational work. Interventions include strategies that promote:

  • Individuation – which seeks specific information to avoid group-based assumptions
  • Perspective taking – imagining oneself as a member of a stereotyped group to limit group-based evaluations
  • Increasing contact – having positive intergroup interactions which alter cognitive representations2

While the lion’s share of the support for racial healing and relational work has come from multiple philanthropic entities, some related public sector investments have also been made and stand as examples for civic and public sector leaders. One outstanding public sector example is the Healing Illinois Initiative.

Healing Illinois is a racial healing initiative of the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) and the Field Foundation of Illinois. Healing Illinois was designed to support communities across Illinois to begin or continue the work of racial healing in their communities. The ongoing oppressive and structural tactics that uphold systemic racism and inequities highlight the need for racial healing, and the need to address the underlying systems that have created the conditions where vast racial disparities are allowed to exist. As we move ahead with the work of systemic change, we must also lay the groundwork for community healing, acknowledging the harm done to communities of color and providing the space for healing. Healing Illinois represents one step in that process, promoting racial healing for everyone, and advancing racial equity in Illinois.

The major goals of this project are to:

  • Build knowledge and understanding of racial healing and equity in communities across the state
  • Strengthen trust and relationship building, among the residents of Illinois
  • Expand opportunities for communities and individuals to begin to heal from the harms caused by racism
  • Increase awareness and media engagement focused on racial healing and equity4

Three specific funded initiatives include:

The overarching purpose of racial healing efforts is to build the capacity for appreciating our common and shared humanity. Phoebe Stein, President of the Federation of State Humanities Councils, was encouraged by the Heart of America Annual Survey and said the poll results confirm that healing is possible at the community level. “As the Federation supports the nation’s humanities councils to strengthen the civic, cultural, and social fabric of our nation through the humanities, I am heartened to see the results of this survey that tell us healing begins in the community: The path forward starts with empathy, respect, and relationship building,” said Stein.

Finding #2: 8-in-10 Believe in Promoting Diversity in the Workplace and Educating our Children on the History of Racism

Eight-in-ten (including three-in-four Republicans) believe that promoting diversity in the workplace, so people of all different races are working together, and educating our children on the history of race and racism in America, are important first steps for our nation to begin the process of racial healing. Workplace diversity is so important because we are still segregated as a country. The workplace is one of the few opportunities available in our society to engage with the perceived other given our historic and present day residential and school segregation. As the Yale Law School professor and sociologist Monica Bell writes: “Segregation entails the distribution of ethnic groups across a coherent geographic area (separation), and the movement of marginalized ethnic groups into identifiable and stigmatized enclaves (concentration)…4 

Scholar and activist Susan Eaton quotes Bell in a recent paper that was commissioned by the NCHE in which she discusses the importance of understanding the impact of segregation in our efforts to achieve equity. She further delineated the impact of racial segregation in our society:

“Separation by invented racial categories and socioeconomic status is a defining feature of our American landscape, our social institutions, and public spaces. At the root of much of this separation is the belief in the hierarchy of human value, or racism. It is this belief that has given rise to America’s peculiar antinomy. We are a multiethnic democratic society marred from our earliest days by the theft of Indigenous lands and slavery. From this diseased root metastasized a tangle of laws, government policies and practices and acts by private institutions and individuals that spread and worsened segregation in every sector of our lives.”5

Residential segregation accompanies school segregation and enhances the need for teaching America’s history honestly to overcome our persistent divides. It is encouraging to find the high level of support for increasing equitable opportunity and diversity within our workplace settings and support for honest education about our nation’s founding and formative centuries that were shaped by the ideology of racial hierarchy. This shows that decisions by lawmakers and judges to censor history and erect new barriers to diversity are out of step with the American public. It is incumbent upon civic and public sector leaders to stay the course towards diversifying the workplace by providing equitable opportunities for employment and assuring that there is school curriculum content that honors the diverse history and contributions of all. 

Finding #3: 88 percent Would Support a Leader Who Aims to Unite America 

Eighty-eight percent of Americans agree or strongly agree to support a leader who aims to unite everyone in our country, even when people have disagreements, including 47 percent of Americans who strongly agree with that statement. This surprising finding has implications for all levels of our democratic society; local, state, and national. Leaders in all sectors (elected, appointed, grassroots, and professional) need the information, data, and skills that help to unite diverse people. Such skills facilitate communication, foster understanding, compassion, and demonstrate a caring attitude towards fellow human beings. Here are four examples of leaders that have demonstrated the skills and courage in the face of complex circumstances to create new narratives despite persistent resistance to change:

  • Former Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring reversed more than 50 legal opinions issued by predecessors during the Jim Crow and “massive resistance” eras that justified segregation, interracial marriage bans, and other racist laws. As a practical matter, the old legal opinions had been rendered moot by civil rights laws and Supreme Court cases outlawing discrimination. But supporters of Herring’s action said it was important to formally renounce those opinions. The opinions that have been overturned were used to support the state’s massive resistance campaign, in which Virginia employed a wide variety of tactics to fight off federal desegregation efforts, including shutting down public schools rather than allowing integration. Herring said the review going back more than a century was a massive project “but as I saw that my time was coming to an end, I knew it was important for the commonwealth for us to get this across the finish line.”6 Former Attorney General Herring’s efforts have inspired other attorneys general and are part of a growing movement to address past wrongs within the laws and legal infrastructure of our nation.
  • Too often the idea of equity and progress for historically marginalized groups is framed as a zero-sum argument. Division is seeded by suggesting that progress for people of color must come at the expense of progress for the dominant group. Best-selling author, thought leader, and former President of Demos, a national movement-oriented think tank, Heather McGhee refutes the validity of this false narrative. In her award-winning book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, McGhee engages millions across the country in a new way of understanding our economy and related public policies. She has coined the term, “drained pool policies” to illustrate how denying opportunities to some has harmful consequences for all. Through her subsequent podcast of the same title, McGhee interviews local leaders who have built multiracial coalitions and achieved policy victories that benefit whole jurisdictions and communities. Her message is both unifying and uplifting and offers proof that there is a benefit to be gained from a viable multiracial, multiethnic democracy. McGhee calls this the ‘solidarity dividend.’
  • Approximately 300 public health jurisdictions have now declared that racism is a public health emergency or crisis.7 This was largely a local and grassroots effort over the last decade. “While we focus on differences, this survey reinforces my belief, and that of most Americans, that we can and want to work together for racial healing and equity,” Georges C. Benjamin, MD, American Public Health Association Executive Director said. “APHA, NCHE, and countless local organizations across the country are uniting people in this goal.” Local proponents welcomed the courageous statement in 2021 by the then new Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Rochelle Walensky. “Racism is a serious public health threat that directly affects the well-being of millions of Americans. As a result, it affects the health of our entire nation.”8 This marked the first time that the nation’s largest public health institution, the CDC, officially addressed the issue of racism and its importance to the entire nation. Stark racial disparities in exposure, incidents and mortality from COVID-19 revealed longstanding flaws in our healthcare and public health systems which required immediate action. Under Walensky’s leadership, the CDC put strategies, as well as data and information systems, in place to increase accountability for equity and to enhance engagement of previously marginalized groups and voices in the public health data gathering system.
  • While the movement for health equity has been decades in the making, progress has been limited by a narrative that focused primarily on documenting the health disparities. This well-established pattern of tracking health inequities was disrupted under the leadership of Brian Smedley, editor of the landmark book, Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care and co-founding, former Executive Director of NCHE. Smedley worked with a team of health equity leaders to create an innovative health equity data resource, the Health Opportunity and Equity (HOPE) Initiative. This web-based resource is used to set specific, aspirational but achievable goals for closing the gaps in health outcomes and equity at the national and state level throughout America. This innovative resource, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, shifts the narrative by raising expectations for progress, establishing a quantifiable distance-to-goal framework that can be used to hold stakeholders accountable for real change. This resource is available to local, state, and national leaders.

The examples cited above offer insights about different types of leadership and subsequent action that has helped to unite and drive progress toward a more racially healed, and as a result, healthier America. These individuals demonstrate that it is possible to squarely face our difficult past while at the same time holding themselves and others accountable for collective progress.


This article has highlighted a few of the most important findings of our first Heart of America Annual Survey. The fact that there is a growing call for relational work that provides healing our divides coupled with an appreciation for workplace diversity and the necessity of educating the next generation about our nation’s harm-ladened past that was steeped in racial hierarchy logically lead to an overwhelming call for leadership that unites rather than divides our nation. And yet, the 88% call for unifying leadership is still surprising. Perhaps it reflects an innate human, psychological need for perceived peace and stability. At the individual level and the societal level, the absence of peace and stability trigger stress-related dynamics that foster disease and degeneration. The imperative for balance is natural. Achieving that balance is more difficult during these times than in past decades.

Every major social transformational era in the history of our nation has been associated with major innovations in mass media and communication. The abolition of slavery emerged as newspapers and telegraphic communication became available. The civil rights movement reached the hearts of millions through television. This current era of information technology, social media, and AI is having a major impact on our mass communication and subsequent understanding and perception of our country and our humanity. Now, perhaps more so than ever before, the profit motive is shaping the messages and stories that we hear as a result of toxic algorithmic formulas that drive online search engines, social media, and increasingly AI platforms.9 These messages also embody historic racism.

At NCHE, we believe those who are committed to healing, unifying, and sustaining our democracy must become a counterweight to existing irresponsible, divisive, dominant media narratives. While this Heart of America Annual Survey is national in scope, we encourage local and elected leaders to use a similar strategy at local and state levels, and we’d welcome the opportunity to partner on such endeavors. The design of our poll emerged after a year of landscape analysis, research, and validation that there was a different narrative to be gleaned as a result of queries that tapped into—in the words of Abraham Lincoln— “the better angels of our nature.” The results provide hope and much needed affirmation during these troubled times.

Gail C. Christopher is Executive Director of the National Collaborative for Health Equity.

1 “Political Polarization in the American Public,” Pew Research Center, 2014, Accessed on November 17, 2023,
2 Devine, Patricia G et al, “Long-term reduction in implicit race bias: A prejudice habit-breaking intervention.” Journal of experimental social psychology vol. 48,6 (2012): 1267-1278. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2012.06.003
3 “IDHS: Learn about the initiative”, Accessed on November 17, 2023.
4 Bell, Monica C., “Anti-Segregation Policing,” New York University Law Review, Vol. 95, p. 650, 2020, Accessed on November 17, 2023, Available at SSRN:
5 Eaton, Susan, “Segregation Yesterday and Today: Exploring Possibilities for Systemic Change,” National Collaborative for Health Equity,  In press, available January 2024, Accessed on November 17, 2023.
6 Barakat, Matthew, “Attorney general reverses Jim Crow, pro-segregation opinions,” AP News, 2022, Accessed on November 2023,
7 “Advancing Health Equity Through the Legislative Process,” ASTHO, 2022, Accessed on November 17, 2023,
8 Wamsley, Laurel, “CDC Director Declares Racism a Public Health Threat, NPR, 2021, Accessed on November 17, 2023.
9 Noble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. New York: New York University Press, 2018.

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